In recent years, the MENA region has not been a stranger to startup success stories. With entrepreneurs like Fetchr’s Idriss Al Rifai or Careem’s Magnus Olsson and Mudassir Sheikha proving the value and impact of local startups, Arab nations have been witnessing a kind of entrepreneurial renaissance.
The 3D printing sector holds major potential for this entrepreneurial innovation. In 2014, China printed an entire house in less than 24 hours. In 2016, they printed villa in less than 45 days. This year, the Dubai Future Foundation announced that 25% of Dubai’s new buildings will be made using 3D printers by 2030, cutting construction costs by 50%-70% and labor costs by 50%-80%.
This is where Buildink, a cement 3D printing startup, comes in. This startup stands to play a huge role in the future of Middle Eastern construction, and people are starting to take notice. It won Tech Crunch’s (TC) first Startup Battlefield competition in the MENA region last month, where they competed against 14 other local innovators to come out on top as the undisputed winners.
So, what makes Buildink so special, and how did this tiny enterprise come to be?
What is so special about Buildink?
Speaking to Bilal Farshoukh, CEO and co-founder at Buildink, AMEinfo learned that the company has the world’s first cable robot concrete 3D printer, and this sets them apart from other startups.
“There are actually four or five 3D concrete printers in the world but they are all based in Europe, the USA, and Russia,” Farshoukh said. “So, the idea is that we did a new design for the printer, a cable robot that’s used for the first time in concrete 3D printing, while other companies use an arm or a frame. That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”
According to Farshoukh, Buildink “aims to deliver single-story houses in under one week. Our aim is to reduce the construction time by up to 75%, where we’ll be able to print single-story houses in 2-3 days using our custom-made concrete mixture.”
Farshoukh thinks that his team won TC’s competition because their “ idea is completely new to the market, and to the entirety of the Middle East.”
An idea born out of friendship
Farshoukh recalled how the startup began as a senior university project between friends. He had to abandon the safety of an employee life to pursue his dream.
As a 6-member team of 5 engineers and 1 business manager, they set out to apply to regional accelerators and investors.
Eventually, they applied to Flat6 Labs, a regional startup accelerator program in Beirut.
“Flat6 Labs was new to the ecosystem,” Farshoukh said. “They accepted us in late 2017, around November. We were enrolled in a 4-month cycle with them, and seed-funded us at the idea stage.”
He continued, “We got $80,000: $40,000 in cash, and $40,000 in services. These services include the office that we operate from, and the workspace where we assembled our printer. This sum also includes the mentors they have provided us with throughout this 4-month period.”
Despite winning Tech Crunch’s Startup Battlefield, they had initially set out to avoid competitions, as the prize funds were often limited in versatility.
What will Buildink contribute to the construction sector?
While Buildink is not designed to handle entire construction projects, they will assist builder companies with their operations.
“For example, if a construction company takes a huge project, let’s say a tower or mall, we can work on any part that could involve single-story units, single-story cabins, curved walls, or even outdoor furniture. Anything that would take a lot of time to be built traditionally, we can work on, especially that we currently have a 2m x 2m x 2m cube printer.”
In order to be able to build single-story houses, Farshoukh and his team are seeking an investment so that they can assemble a 10m x 8m x 5m printer that will position them to better target the real estate market.
In fact, Buildink is already aiming big. Farshoukh revealed to AMEinfo that his startup is in the final stages of signing a strategic partnership with one of the largest construction companies in the Middle East. Very soon, they could begin contributing to operations in Saudi and the UAE.
Farshoukh explained: “This company will give us projects – test projects in Lebanon. For example, we have to print outdoor benches for Flat6 Labs, and for the Beirut Digital District (BDD). After we finish printing these benches, this company will give us a small project in Dubai. We estimate that this will take place in about 6-8 months from now, because we still have 2 or 3 months of testing our printer here where it’s currently located.”
“This is a huge opportunity for us to operate in Dubai or in Saudi Arabia because I already know that both of these GCC countries have taken projects that incorporate 3D printing. Dubai, for example, are planning to have 25% of their buildings 3D-printed by 2030. So, even if we printed the minimum parts of these projects, it will be a huge thing for us.”
Buildink will save construction companies time and labor costs
The Lebanese startup is looking to save construction firms a whole lot in terms of time, labor complexity and financial costs. For example, “instead of a single-story house taking 1 month to construct and an extra 2 months to be ready to be occupied, we will finish it in just 1 week,” Farshoukh said. “We will reduce construction time by about 70%-75%.”
The startup will reduce the labor needed to construct a single-story house from 20-30 workers to 1 engineer running the printer and 2 workers.
Finally, Buildink will solve a major problem for local construction companies in terms of cost.
Farshoukh explained that it costs almost the same to source the raw materials used in a traditional operation compared to a 3D printing project. Where construction companies will save is with the cement mix.
“This was actually a problem for the construction company that we are signing with.”
Buildink’s prospective partner is paying a fortune to import the raw materials into the region from abroad.
What Buildink offers this and other construction companies is a local, top-quality cement mix. They can prepare their cement mix locally, whether in Lebanon or in Saudi or in Dubai, and it’s the same quality as any mix you’d get abroad, Farshoukh clarified.
In fact, this is how Buildink hopes to make its revenue: By selling their services and prepackaged concrete mix, the formula of which is a company secret. In the process, they’d save these firms massive amounts of import taxes and fees.
Based on their estimates, Farshoukh’s team will also reduce the price of a single-story unit to $10,000-$15,000. Winsun, the Chinese company that garnered international attention in 2014 for its 3D printed houses, said that it will sell their homes for $30,000, almost triple the price Buildink will bring to the market.
Apis Core, a US-based startup, similarly built a single-story residential house last year for less than $10,000. The difference? They used a crane-based robot.
A success story to learn from
Currently, Buildink does not have any competitors in the region. Should its partnership with the undisclosed construction company come to fruition, they could be very well be positioned to play a major role in the regional 3D printing sector in the coming years.
What Buildink has achieved so far is no small feat, and Farshoukh and his team are sitting on a business idea with untapped latent potential.
In the end, Farshoukh summed up their journey so far with a piece of advice for other entrepreneurs. Simply: “Believe in yourself and your team. That’s actually my only advice.”